A Found Piece of History
or: The Little Needlework Teacher with Green Hair
Surprised that I collect embroidery books? Prolly not. But what I found today is truly special. Books on embroidery are often small print-runs, and some of my favorites are long out-of-print. I rarely turn down any vintage embroidery books that come my way. Friends and family kindly give me what they find, I'll scoop up a pile at a thrift store or garage sale, pay the few dollars, and take them home to sort through. The result is a pretty big collection. But, most of my books are still in storage and I've really been missing them. So, while at an estate sale today I made sure to check out the books.
Today's find was different.
Score! The lady of the house was a needleworker. Nothing different about that. I bought the whole pile ready to grow my personal resource library again -even though I already have one or two of these titles, especially those by Constance Howard. (The Constance Howard Book of Stitches is one of my favorites.)
Let's meet Constance Howard, or "Mrs. P" (as she was called by her students):
There she is. I've seen this photo so many times from the back of the many, exhaustively researched books she wrote. She looks a bit stern doesn't she? Like she'd rap your knuckles and tell you that your stitches were all wrong it was time to just start all over again or not bother. Right?
Get ready for a few surprises.
The Balcony - Constance Howard, 1946
First of all, her work looked like this. If you told me this piece was from the groovy 70's, I'd believe you. For 1946, this seems unusually loose, illustrative and lovely. Icy wind carrying leaves across a balcony letting a winsome girl know winter is coming. The wrought-iron balcony alternates from black and white for contrast against the ground fabric. Lovely. Not what I'd expect from the lady in the photo.
But get this: Constance Howard always wore her hair (no, not in a bun)...dyed green. G R E E N. With lithographer's ink. Because it was the 1930's and there was no Manic Panic back then. Still think she looks like some uptight, stern needleworker? Perhaps not. Think we're all renegade and outrageous? Perhaps not.
When I got back to the car, I started flipping through each book to see what
I'd just picked up. I saw some inscriptions...and then I looked closer:
Every copy was signed by Constance Howard. Gasp! I wiped my eyes as if seeing a mirage and looked again. These are signatures! "To Elsa". Elsa who?
Do I really have signed copies of Constance Howard's books? My heart was pounding. Who's
"Elsa"? Was she some uber fan? Are they going to knock on the window of the car and tell me they just realized these books aren't for sale? (Luckily not.)
Once home, I started looking at the cover page to
every book I had just bought to see if there were any hints...
Aha! THAT Elsa Williams. Wait, who's Elsa Williams? Oh great and wise google...please just tell me...
An author and designer! Elsa S. Williams of the Elsa Williams School of Needlearts! Her books and kits are all over the internets. Has she recently passed away? Was this her estate sale? Did she retire to California? Was this a relative? Or, did someone purchase these books from her school years ago? Alas -those answers are not known.
Elsa Williams School of Needlearts - image via cardcow.com
What I do know is, that I feel like I own something really, really special, that is of great significance to me: a stack of books previously owned by Elsa Williams, signed to her by Constance Howard.
How cool is that?
To see a real photo of her green hair, and learn more about Constance Howard, click here.
Any information about Elsa Williams and her School of Needlearts would be greatly appreciated.
Comment here (top of the page), or email me.
Update 3/12/12: More information has come in about Elsa Williams and her School of Needlearts!
Rebekah Blades' curiosity sent her on a researching mission that turned up several links. Here's a photo of Elsa Williams with some information about the establishment of her live-in needlearts school (no, you all can not move into my house -sorry). Elsa also began writing a nationally syndicated column called "Joy of Stitching" in 1975. The last big needlework revival. T'was ever thus.
Dawn Rogal (who was the winner of the Mod Contest from last year) was once a student at Elsa's school. I hope she doesn't mind me sharing her recollections with you:
Do YOU hold a thimble from Elsa's school?